Discourse is the major currency of the classroom. The distinct pattern of language typically used in classrooms can be called "school talk." It is important to help teachers understand that it is just talk—something most children are likely quite good at in other contexts, even those who don't shine verbally in the classroom. "School talk" typically is used for different reasons and in different ways than "home talk," the talk most often used at home in everyday social conversations. Although critically important to school success, school talk is rarely addressed directly as a possible reason that a child may be experiencing difficulty in school. A child with excellent academic potential may simply lack experience with this important pattern of language use.
Over time, not being adept at "talking the classroom talk" may lead to lower general academic achievement (see Cazden, 2001; Wilkinson & Silliman, 2000) and lower reading comprehension (see Nystrand, 2006, for a review). It may also negatively affect the child's social identity (Stables, 2003) as well as teachers' perceptions of the child (see Reid, 2000, for a discussion). To help avoid these negative consequences for children who arrive at school not fluent in school talk, teachers need to understand the concept of school talk, how school talk and home talk differ, and how the values and beliefs of some cultural groups may be at odds with various aspects of school talk.
Categories of Talk
How are home talk and school talk different? The differences can be distilled into three categories—why we talk, how we talk, and what we talk about (van Kleeck, 2006a). Of course, there are no absolutes, but rather degrees of differences between the categories. In social contexts, we talk to accomplish activities of everyday living, develop and maintain relationships with family and friends, and give information. In school, talk also focuses on the logistics of getting through everyday activities and on developing and maintaining relationships; the crux of the curriculum, however, uses talk to build knowledge so that children can learn about new things and how to think about them logically and scientifically. Children are also frequently asked to display knowledge as teachers ask them questions, presumably to assess whether learning has occurred.
Regarding how we talk, home talk tends to rely on familiar words and even slang. Conversations generally involve fairly balanced turn-taking, and participants' shared context and background often reduces the amount of explanation or detail that must be provided. In contrast, school talk often contains unfamiliar words related to newly presented information; the vocabulary is more formal; and slang is discouraged. Students often spend more time listening to the teacher and less time talking. When using school talk, students shouldn't assume what the listener already knows about the subject and should be explicit in explaining and giving details.
What we talk about also generally differs between home and school talk. In social contexts, we often talk about things that are immediately relevant and personally important—experiences, opinions, plans, and so forth. School talk focuses on topics that usually are not immediately relevant. The goal is to describe, explain, and think in general ways about people, places, and things we usually do not know.
Book Sharing and School Talk
European American, middle-class children are often well-rehearsed in school talk long before they reach formal schooling (see van Kleeck, 2006a, 2006b). They can typically display verbally what they know, since they are frequently requested to do so during book-sharing—a frequent activity for them that involves lots of interaction. In this and other contexts, they may also learn to talk about things, describe things, and reason about unknown people and events. Knowing the "talk," they often appear to their teachers to know more and be more interested than children who do not know school talk.
Values and beliefs of other cultural groups—such as Hispanic, African American, Asian American, Native American, and those from poor or working-class backgrounds—may result in family practices and child behaviors that are not consistent with school talk (see van Kleeck, 2006a, 2006b). For some families, learning may be accomplished more by demonstration and observation than by discussion, so verbal display of knowledge may also be quite rare. A quiet child may be valued and considered respectful and intelligent, while a talkative one might be considered self-centered, discourteous, undisciplined, and unintelligent. As a result, a child's participation in conversation, particularly with adults, may be discouraged in any number of ways.
Adults may tend to not follow the child's conversational lead, discourage a child's questions, and believe the child should not initiate topics or conversations. Because book-sharing generally occurs less often (see ChildStats.gov, 2007) in some cultures, and conversation during book-sharing is often not as encouraged, children may have less experience reasoning about text-related events. For example, in some Latino cultures, preschoolers are not expected "to think out load or talk about stories" (Janes & Kermani, 2001, p. 464). Of course this information must be viewed with full knowledge of the great diversity within the broad categories typically used to define cultural groups, including the middle-class, European American group. It is the values, beliefs, and practices of an individual family that are important to an individual child's experiences.
If teachers are to see a child's full potential, it is important that a child's inexperience with school talk in the home not cloud that view. They should realize that a bright child may not participate in class discussion for reasons more related to culture than competence. Furthermore, it is important not to assume that all children will simply pick up on dimensions of school talk by being immersed in it. Middle-class European American children likely have had a several-year apprenticeship with school talk before entering school.
To help children who lack this degree of experience, teachers should explicitly introduce them to the "different way we talk in school." Teachers can point out when dimensions of home talk are used in the classroom and applaud the good example of home talk, but then discuss how it differs from school talk. The children might then brainstorm on how to make the essence of the same comment or response more like "school talk."
These interventions should not wait until the elementary school years. Preschoolers are fully capable of engaging in the pattern of language use typical of school talk, and the more experience they get with using language in this manner before they enter the school years, the better their chance of success in school.